Methods of Modernity from the Margins: Toward New Theories of Africa and/in the Americas
Conference on Latin American History 65
In the last few decades, scholars across the disciplines have rigorously interrogated the descriptive, ascriptive, and highly politicized meanings of “modernity.” Historians, anthropologists, political scientists, and others have questioned whether modernity is singular or multiple, a bundle of traits universally applicable or a provincial trajectory, and whether and how it functions across emic and etic boundaries. Not coincidentally, during the same period, those who study the history of Africans in both Africa and the Americas have developed a number of new theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches for illuminating the world wrought by the largest forced migration of people in global history. Earlier debates concerning retentions and losses of notionally static, reified African culture through the violence of colonialism and slavery have given way to more dynamic examinations of the transformations of political, social, and cultural practices on either side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, these discussions largely continue to center the “Atlantic” – Black or otherwise -- as coded shorthand for sea-borne European capital and the revolutions it wrought across the rest of the world.
Moving beyond the pervasive calls to “rethink the Black Atlantic,” in this panel, we seek to conceive of new ways through which Africans both on the continent and in the Americas can be placed at the center of a re-conceptualization of modernity. Beginning with long durée approaches to African political, intellectual, cultural, and social life, we employ multi-disciplinary approaches in investigating the contours of modernities wrought by Africans living during the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Anthropological, semiotic, and geographic methods allow for us to call for a new understanding of both the chronologies and cartographies of global history, arguing that the conceptual worlds and politico-intellectual repertoires of the Africans who comprised four out of every five arrivals in the Americas prior to 1800 are an essential element of any comprehensive understanding of modernity. Rather than focusing primarily or exclusively on the political, economic, and cultural ramifications of the circulation of African bodies for Europeans, this panel is more concerned with the circulation, contestation, and consolidation of ideologies and epistemologies among Africans on either side of the Atlantic.